Donne’s “Twicknam Garden”

John Donne

John Donne

Since my trip to London in April, I’ve been revisiting John Donne’s poetry for the first time since college. I wish that I had picked him up earlier. Many of the places that I quickly passed by on my trip were haunts of Donne: Lincoln’s Inn, Bread Street, St. Paul’s, Hertford College, etc. It would have been nice to have had him at my fingertips, as it were.

This morning I decided to give Twicknam Garden a good, close reading. The poem’s title reminded me of staying at a friend’s house in Twickenham over ten years ago. I remember getting up early in the mornings to walk down by the Thames to hear the early morning sounds of the river. My memories of natural beauty and tranquility were disturbed by Donne’s first stanza, beginning with, “Blasted by sighs, and surrounded with teares…”

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with teares,    
Hither I come to seeke the spring,    
And at mine eyes, and at mine eares,    
Receive such balmes, as else cure every thing;    
But O, selfe traytor, I do bring             
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,    
And can convert Manna to gall,    
And that this place may thoroughly be thought    
True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.
1633 printing of the poem

1633 printing of the poem

Donne, in the spirit of his age, saw the garden as the setting for the balance of art and nature. When he arrives in the garden, the “paradise” of his patroness the Countess of Bedford, he says that he is a “selfe traytor,” and that he has brought the serpent with him. This serpent, the unrequited love that has transformed him by its denial, has also transformed nature.

Donne goes on to complain bitterly of his suffering at the hands of love, and offers the reader a series of religious conceits to stumble upon. He offers his own suffering as the only “truth” and urges the reader to test his tears with the tears of their false lovers at home. In the end, the pain inflicted upon him is the only truth available in the realm of love and false lovers.

The question I suppose is how much emphasis do we put upon the poet’s playing of a traditional role, that of the unrequited lover? There may be some flattery going on here for his patroness, but does this explain his own self-abuse and self-grandissment? He begins the next stanza stating that “Twere wholsomer for mee, that winter did / Benight the glory of this place,” which seems to cancel his reason for going to the garden in the first place, to find a balme for his pain.

In the end, I can’t help but repeat to myself the line, “Make me a mandrake, so I may groane here.” (Insert groaning noise, if you please.)